Watching my grandmother in action while bargaining with a shopkeeper is like watching a strange mini one-act play.
Her age is a nebulous floating target somewhere in mid-to-late 70's. She claims to be 78. Sometimes. Some of her children say she is 76. No one seems to be able to nail down when her actual birthday is. Who knows if they're all counting on the same scale even, by the Western or by the Chinese calendar?
She's lived in New York's Chinatown during her entire 40 years in the US, ever since they joined my dad when he came here for college. A queen bee, ensconced in and running her piano store and school, overseeing generations of children come through and learn with varying degrees of success to bang out semblances of salutes to Beethoven and Bach and Chopin.
She doesn't believe in checkbooks, or credit cards.
When she tells me I must never accept a given price for something as set in stone, that I must bargain or else I'm a fool, I nod and accept her advice. But I feel like a fool trying to put her advice into action. As an artist, I know how much work I put into every item, and the difficulty of price assessment. And so when faced with another artisan, to attempt to bargain with them would feel disrespectful and a dishonoring of their craft, their art, their valuation of their time. I could never do that. And when faced with a retailer...well in our culture and world of printed sticker prices and barcode scans, it's mostly just a big don't.
We walk down what she calls in Chinese "gold street". I didn't see any street sign to tell me what its name on maps was. She turns into a corner store with purpose, greets the jewelers heartily behind the counter by name. They return with similar enthusiasm. She has many children and step-children, and a multitude more grandchildren, and this store has supplied her doting habits in the past. But it's more than that. Before she even begins to eye the numerous sparkling glass display cases, she asks after one man's son, another's daughter, both of whom paid their dues at piano lessons at her school.
And then she takes a spot comfortably at one of the seats in front of the cases, as if settling to a familiar bar stool. Her tone is still friendly and conversational, like the salesman were the barkeep and she was asking him for her usual. She keeps up the chatter, telling him how her eldest son and his family is in town visiting from California. She wants to buy me a pair of earrings. They're a small token. Little sparklies. The salesman pulls them out, praises me and tells my grandmother, Excellent choice. Yes, those are definitely the ones. She has to have them, he declares. Look how pretty in her ears. These are the absolute latest fashion. All the young girls are wearing them!
And then she settles to business. The melodrama begins, on both sides. Rapid fire exchange.
I want a good price, she tells him. I'm a good friend to you, you've known me a long time, what can you do?
Of course of course! I would only give you best price, he returns. The best price on this whole street! How's this? He rapidly punches in a series of numbers in his hand calculator, barely even looking as his fingers type automatically. He slides it over to her.
She gasps, hurt indignation in her voice. What?! I thought we were good friends! Is that all 'good friends' mean?
Well, you have known me so long, he hedges. A little lower, here.
She glances at the number, scoffs. That's it?
Ah! I have my family to feed! My daughter! My son! How about... some more arcane numbers get input to the calculator ... this? Lowest I can go. He looks so mournful. I wonder if he might start tearing at his hair.
She purses her lips, sighs sadly. And after all the discounts I gave your children for their lessons. I hear from their teacher your son in particular is progressing quite well these days. He's such a well behaved boy.
Oh yes, a very good boy.
He moans and grunts and types in a new number, raised eyebrows.
She ponders for a moment, then sadly reaches for her bags. Perhaps my other good friend might....
No no! he stops her, typing in one last number. Lowest I can go, honest truely, would I deceive you? No profit for me with this price, no profit at all.
She knows he is lying still. But with a sixth sense, she knows that this is as far as she can push. She smiles then as their agendas converge.
Like actors whose roles are now done, the intent focus slips off from both of them, and they settle to the mundane task of the actual monetary transaction and writeup of receipts. I feel a strange pride for her after having witnessed the confident demeanor she had possessed, and the utter surety with which the events of the past couple minutes had transpired. Even as I knew I myself would never be caught dead having done what she did, or had the sheer audacity for it either. It's not something that fits into my world. And yet, the jeweler doesn't seem nearly as heartbroken as the previous moments would have led one to believe he must be, and I see again how that actor's mask had quickly been set aside once it came to the sealing of the deal. That was the part that mattered. The rest...was just the path to get there, one way or another, one price or another.
That was several years ago. Perhaps a decade. She's a lot more physically frail now. But I still see her as a queen bee.
I watched her do it again today: she quickly and professionally whittled a price down to its minimum at a jewelery store here. She didn't know this manager, nor have any history with him, as this time it was she who was visiting us in California instead of us in New York on her turf. And so the melodrama during the exchange was at a minumum, due merely to a lack of reference point. But she still had that audacious confidence that I wouldn't be able to emulate. Back and forth the price jumped in staccato Cantonese, and before my brother could even protest that he didn't need a jade necklace, it was slipped around his neck, and the reciept tucked away into our grandmother's purse.
You'll need the luck for your job hunt! she tells him. He is moving back to Sunnyvale with his wife to be closer to family in the coming months, quitting his job for the sake of the move, despite the uncertain job climate. Wear it pressed against your skin. It's a fish. For prosperity.
He gives up on protesting and just thanks her.